Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald locked up for publishing the classified information leaked to him by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former security contractor who divulged details of the NSA’s PRISM data mining program to the Guardian and the Washington Post.
“No right is absolute. And even the press has certain restrictions,” King told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly on Wednesday, “I think it should be very targeted, very selective, and certainly a very rare exception, but in this case, when you have someone who has disclosed secrets like this and threatens to release more, then to me, yes, there has to be, there should be legal action taken against [Greenwald].”
For all King’s bluster, he knows perfectly well that the U.S. is unlikely to prosecute Greenwald. No U.S. journalist has ever been successfully prosecuted for publishing classified information. This may seem counterintuitive. If it’s against the law to leak classified information, why is it legal for journalists to publish it?
The answer lies in a carefully engineered balance between the government’s prerogative for secrecy and the press’s freedom to report the news. Many core government functions, like national defense, depend on the state’s ability to maintain control of sensitive information. Officials and contractors with security clearances take an oath to keep the secrets they are shown and they are warned that if they fail to do so, they may be prosecuted.
Journalism is constitutionally protected because it serves as a check on power of all kinds. We count on journalists to expose wrongdoing and force transparency on the institutions that affect our lives. We want to live in a world where every decision maker knows that, at least in principle, her orders could end up on the front page of tomorrow’s paper, because the mere possibility of accountability serves as a check on abuse of power. Every decision maker needs to know that if she pushes her underlings to violate their core values, she is ultimately at their mercy.